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Michelle and I had been dating for nearly three years when we decided to break with the Christian sexual ideals I was raised with.
I carried those standards with me into college and deep into our relationship not just because I felt obligated to by God or my family, but because I genuinely agreed with them. The logic of waiting for marriage was comfortable to me; if you have sex with your girlfriend, I reasoned, it seemed nothing would be left for marriage but tax benefits.
In our high school, located in the county leading our state in teenage pregnancy rates, Michelle was a social anomaly. She had had only one boyfriend by senior year and she didn’t drink or frequent our town’s one night club.
She was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a church-goer, first chair trumpet player, and smiling every time I saw her. And rather than a frumpy-looking-high-school-virgin stereotype, she was a knock-out: dark-complexioned, bright-smiled and well-endowed.
Our romantic relationship didn’t really start until I moved away from her to go to college and we started chatting over MySpace during my first semester. While visiting home during winter break that year, Michelle and I met up a few times and agreed to try a long-distance relationship.
Toward the end of the break, I headed back to my college town two hours away to make a friend’s New Year’s Eve party right before classes kicked back up. In place of kissing during our first New Year’s Eve together, I stepped outside my friend’s house and called her at midnight. We somehow stumbled upon our first conversation about sex, and as I paced around my friend’s yard, I found that she had no intention of locking away her virginity.
“I always thought I would do it when I was ready to and found the right person,” she said.
I fired back: “But the Bible says pretty explicitly that you shouldn’t. You’re just going to ignore that?”
“I don’t know,” she groaned. “I was raised to think that it’s just something people do when they love each other and they’re ready.”
“But what about when you get married? It wouldn’t be special anymore.”
“I’ll still think it’s special.”
Certified as an authority on Christian sexuality by a True Love Waits contract hanging from my childhood bedroom wall, I continued to rant about following all of the Bible’s regulations, after which Michelle conceded in frustration that she was no longer considering having sex with me.
On my next bi-monthly visit home, we started looking for ways to fool around, in a way I considered not-unholy, usually in a parked car at night and usually centered on making out.
While doing this on her parents’ couch early on in our relationship, she reached down and touched the erection that had inevitably sprung up between us, causing me to convulse in surprise and flop to the floor. It marked our first trip to second base, and our last for a while.
My sophomore year, Michelle moved out of our hometown for college, too. Our newfound privacy offered greater possibilities for exploration, so as we would make out on a full-size bed behind a locked door, I would position myself on top of her for sometimes hours on end, rubbing my lower body into hers, safely containing our contact within our clothes.
From there we eventually moved on to what youth pastors call “heavy petting.” I reasoned that anything that didn’t result in explicit intercourse fell short of sin, and so we stuck to the intimacy we knew was safely within our conservative limits.
If we squinted hard enough as we lay there in missionary position, panting lightly, fluids pumping, hands roving, it looked like two people having sex -- until we rubbed our eyes and looked again and saw two virgins kissing on a bed.
Our first escapade into oral sex came on my 20th birthday, a sort of unexpected gift from Michelle. At the time I couldn’t see it for what it really was: a manifestation of her desire for something deeper. She reluctantly nudged us marginally closer to sex, likely hoping I’d take the hint.
After that, we would explore oral sex only occasionally, saving it for birthdays and holidays. Gradually we did it more and more often, but instead of satiating us physically, this new intimacy made us want more of each other. Too timid to address our growing desires, we instead came to a sexual stalemate and fooled around less often; she became unsatisfied with our repetitive motions and I ached for some way to gratify us mutually.
I was more or less physically satisfied, but with her interest in having me do anything for her decreasing I could tell that she wasn’t. I was tired of being the only one satisfied; for the first time we both felt restricted every time we lay together in our underwear, blood pulsing, bodies starving for deeper contact.
Suddenly we wanted a loophole, to justify why thinking about sleeping with the person we loved and hoped to marry one day didn’t feel wrong. I researched biblical theories and found the website of a movement of Christians whose major denominational distinction was the belief that abstinence was a misconception caused by ambiguous translation of the word porneia in the Bible’s original Greek text. They also encouraged promiscuity, but I was fine with only adopting partial dogma.
Over the next few months, Michelle and I would periodically talk about having sex. I even bought a pack of condoms for us to experiment with. Michelle would watch as I unrolled one over myself, both of us marveling at the simplicity of it, excited by the possibilities opened up to us in that moment.
As we lay together under the bed sheets one night, I told Michelle I thought we should have sex.
“Are you sure?” she responded.
“Do you want to?”
She thought for a moment. “Yeah, but didn’t you think we should wait?”
“I think we should. If you do.”
Rather than push for it, she had been waiting for me to decide on what I realized she had already decided on.
The next day, for the second time I watched the eyes of a Wal-Mart cashier as she rang up my three-pack of condoms, checking for signs of judgment or humor.
When I got home I brought the small box inside in my back pocket and stored it in the bag I planned to take to Michelle’s house later. As we texted each other throughout the day we avoided discussing what we both knew we couldn’t stop thinking about.
It was already late when I got to her apartment that night, so without much discussion we brushed our teeth and climbed into bed together. We lay there quietly, my heart racing as I waited for her to bring up what we had both been awaiting for nearly three years.
“Are you still sure you want to?” she asked.
“Yes. Are you?”
The rest of that night is probably a teenager’s cliché, delayed a few years in my case, including repeatedly asked questions like “Are you OK?” “Does it hurt?” and “Are you OK?”
And the truth is we were OK, and still are, two years later, now engaged to be married.
I still wonder if I feel further from God than I did before that night and if, conversely, I feel closer to Michelle because of it, but maybe the better consideration should be which one of those distances outweighs the other.